Road To Omaha: Northern Exposure

The college baseball season is nearly upon us. In 2013, Chris Webb will be charting the road to the College World Series with a weekly column. Webb's first entry discusses the recent emergence of cold weather, northern programs and the rule changes that could lead to more teams like Stony Brook and Kent State finding their way to Omaha this summer.

Full-squad practices for the 2013 season began Friday, January 25.

Three weeks until the Universal Start Date and the college baseball season is around the corner. As publications release preseason polls and All-America teams, anticipation and excitement is in the air.

So too is a new reality.

While powerhouse programs such as Arizona State, Florida State and LSU took the field over weekend, programs north of the Mason-Dixie Line continue to stay indoors, utilizing indoor batting cages and facilities to escape freezing temperatures and snow. This is nothing new for northern programs that are accustomed to not fielding fly balls or stepping in a dirt batter's box until the first game of the season.

What is new for the teams in the Midwest and throughout New England is a reality that such an obstacle can be overcome. This new day in college baseball is due to the exploits of Kent State and Stony Brook, the two northern crashers of the 2012 College World Series.

Bracing single-digit wind chills and snow-laden backdrops where one would need an orange baseball to play catch, the Golden Flashes and Seawolves have commenced practice after last being seen going toe-to-toe with the college baseball elite in their respective roads to Omaha. Meanwhile, programs from Normal, Ill., to Storrs, Conn., to Bloomington, Ind., to Mt. Pleasant, Mich. ask ‘why not us?'

Every program dreams of making it to Omaha. The goal of playing in the College World Series is why a player takes batting practice at 1:30 am, squeezes out one last repetition or stays after hours to perfect pickoff moves. For programs in the north, that dream no longer appears unachievable.

And that makes the 2013 season critical for baseball throughout the region.

For years the deck has been stacked against northern programs. Although not as cumbersome as those within the region believe – nor as fallacious as observers elsewhere perceive – there are real disadvantages, namely weather and schedule, that beleaguer the programs of the Big East, Big Ten, Mid-American and fellow regional conferences. But recent changes to rules, as well as programs seeking to maximize the output of things they can control, have led to a now-or-never time for northern programs.

Were the College World Series appearances of Kent State and Stony Brook outliers, two against-the-odds feats that will not again happen for 15, 20 years? Or has the gap between north and south, warm and cold forever shrunk? As recently as last March, a prominent figure in the north would lead one to believe the former.

John Anderson has been the head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers since 1981. He enters 2013 with a record of 1,092-726-3. The 2008 inductee to the American Baseball Coaches Association is 12th among active coaches in wins. But missing from Anderson's resume is an appearance in the College World Series. Minnesota has yet to even appear in a Super Regional under the NCAA's current tournament format.

During Anderson's tenure, just three Big Ten teams have made the Omaha field of eight: Michigan in 1981, 1983 and 1984. For all that Anderson has accomplished, it is what he and regional peers have yet to do that led him to express a sentiment that raised eyebrows throughout baseball: that his conference should no longer compete for a shot at the College World Series.

In speaking to the Associated Press last February, Anderson suggested that the Big Ten break away from the NCAA's February-June schedule to play games over the summer.

"There were four SEC teams in the College World Series last year. We're never going to catch those people," Anderson said. "The system works for them, and they're not going to want to change it. People are going to criticize this idea, but we need to get people talking about it."

Three months later, after a nationally ranked Purdue team showed it could compete with any in the nation on its way to hosting a regional, and as Kent State and Stony Brook were set to take to the field in Omaha, Anderson's statement appeared ill-advised, beyond comprehension.

"Stony Brook and us getting here shoots a lot of holes in that," Kent State's Scott Stricklin said during his pre-College World Series press conference. "Playing summer baseball and not competing for Omaha doesn't make a lot of sense to me at all. That will never happen. That might have been more shock value to get some movement in a positive direction toward northern baseball."

If Anderson's words were to get people talking about northern baseball, the actions of Stricklin's Golden Flashes served to change the tone of that talk to what can be done to help cold weather programs compete with power conferences.

It isn't outside of the realm of possibilities to see another handful of teams duplicate the efforts of Kent State, Purdue, Stony Brook, and Super Regional participant St. John's.

Picked third in the Big East coaches' preseason poll, Notre Dame looks ready to continue a banner year for its athletic teams. Looking to resemble its 2002 College World Series team, the Irish will be powered by a trio of juniors considered likely top-four round draft picks in third baseman Eric Jagielo, first baseman Trey Mancini and right-handed pitcher Dan Slaina.

Down the road in Terre Haute, the Indiana State Sycamores look to build off of a 41-19 2012 season that ended in the Eugene Regional with a veteran team led by arguably the top draft prospect in junior left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea. Minnesota is led by a pair of top left-handed pitchers: D.J. Snelten and Tom Windle. Both could go off the draft board within the first 100 picks and are a 1-2 punch that give the Gophers a chance every weekend.

And don't forget about those Flashes. Though Stricklin will need to replace his catcher, shortstop and two-thirds of his weekend rotation from the 2012 team, one area scout believes Kent State will have a better team in 2013.

Programs throughout the region have the pieces to make strong postseason runs. Aiding their efforts in charting that course is the NCAA. The 2013 season will see changes to the RPI formula, a tool used by the selection committee in selecting the NCAA tournament field. A team's winning percentage is the first component of the formula and is worth 25%. Starting this season, road wins will be worth 1.3 victories, neutral-site wins will remain worth 1.0 victories, and home wins will be worth 0.7 victories. A home loss will count as 1.3 losses, and road losses will count as 0.7.

For weather-restricted programs that spend the opening five weeks of the season on the road in warmer climates, moving away from a formula that weighs home and road wins equally is welcomed.

Beyond the RPI changes and the Universal Start Date, now in its fifth season, programs throughout the Ohio Valley and Rust Belt are taking matters into their own hands to compete.

Going forward, Anderson's Gophers will play on a renovated Siebert Field, a $7.5 million stadium project. Indiana will open the doors to Bart Kaufman Field, the new Hoosier home that is part of a $19.8 million complex. Following its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1987, Purdue will play games at its new Alexander Field, a stadium that is part of a $21 million project.

The financial commitment isn't restricted to the Big Ten, as Miami University will enhance its McKie Field at Hayden Park with a $2.4 million facility add-on. Southern Illinois University's Board of Trustees has approved the development of the design and bid documents for a renovation of its Abe Martin Field. Spurred by their College World Series appearance, Kent State will enhance its Olga A. Mural Field at Schoonover Stadium with upgrades that include lights.

It would not be just to say northern programs are just now showing meaningful commitment; if that were the case Indiana would not have incurred a 2008 travel expense of $171,422 as part of $1,117,627 in total expenses. By comparison, the last financial data provided to the NCAA from nearby University of Kentucky, a program from the powerful Southeastern Conference that at one point in 2012 was ranked No.1 by Collegiate Baseball, showed total operating expenses of $1,736,736 in 2011. But northern programs are doing more than ever before and now is a time where their efforts, combined with those rule changes from NCAA, present a brighter, more optimistic future for northern baseball.

Kent State and Stony Brook re-introduced northern baseball to the nation in 2012. The 2013 campaign will be a season for programs throughout to show they're here to stay.

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